Golden triangle of the East

Odisha

It is a dull gray morning when I step on the Chandrabhaga beach at Konark. The mild drizzle of early morning seems all set to turn into a downpour. Small groups of fishermen are sitting clustered around their boats, looking at the sea with worried eyes. The few families dipping their feet in the cold waters begin to make their way to the sun temple on the shore and I follow them.

boats

The tourist guide I hire for the morning spins out the kind of stories usually associated with all Indian temples. Of this magnificent temple, he says, twelve hundred workmen toiled at it for twelve years, using up twelve year’s worth of state revenue. Today, despite parts of it being in ruins, the temple still evokes awe, with its lush carvings all around the walls – animals and birds, gods and humans, kings and commoners.

It is believed that the temple was originally constructed right on the shore where I stood earlier, till the sea receded a couple of kilometers sometime in the past. European sailors were said to use this “black pagoda” as a navigational point in the sea. This temple is dedicated to the sun god Surya who resides there (says my guide) with his two wives Chhaya and Sandhya. The scorching, all-powerful sun with his soft, gentle consorts – shade and evening. Heat and cool. Life and stupor.

Konark

wheel

And that is what Konark is all about: the never-ending cycle, the ever-moving rhythm of life. The East-West axis of the temple is shaped like a chariot on twelve pairs of immense wheels, the rays of the sun following the circumference of the temple as the day progresses. The carvings, at eye level, are of an extremely erotic nature, something that takes many a visitor by surprise. My guide says, “In those days, they thought of this as natural and joyful, nothing to be embarrassed about as we are in modern times.”

sculpture

I had landed the day before at Bhubaneshwar’s small but well-maintained airport. This state capital has enough temples of its own to make it worth spending a few days here. Given that I am slightly wary at the thought of getting all templed-out and have a preference for quieter, non-living temples, I head to the Raja Rani mandir. Literally translated as the ‘king and queen temple’, this one is a beauty, the red-brown stone (called rajaraniya, after which the temple is named) smooth and shiny after the fresh showers of the morning.

The carvings on these walls are as intricate as those in Konark, except that there is no sexual imagery here. Instead, there are dancing nymphs with their slender waists and sensual poses from which the local classical dance form Odissi is supposed to have borrowed postures from. Also unlike Konark, this temple is empty but for a few loners sitting on the steps staring into space and couples who use its verdant lawns as a rendezvous point. In fact, the city itself seems uncrowded and unhurried, for me a wonderful change from the bustle of the big city.

temple

Bhubaneshwar

The next day, I leave early for Konark and from there, drive to Puri, most famous for its temple dedicated to Lord Jagannath. I am not there during its famous annual chariot festival but I still find the crowds difficult to handle and so head for the Raghunandan library right opposite. A few rupees change hands and soon, from the upper floor window, a much quieter and peaceful location, I get a good view of the temple.

The beach at Puri is a world away from the piety of the temple, full of families frolicking in the waves and tucking into the tongue tickling fast food bought fresh from vendors. It is also filled with Israeli and German tourists who camp here for weeks and sometimes, months, determined to find the spiritual epiphany they came to India for.

puri1

puri2
(Puri images courtesy wikimedia commons)

When people talk about the golden triangle in India, they usually mean the New Delhi – Agra – Jaipur circuit in the North. Instead, go East to experience this golden triangle of Bhubaneshwar – Konark – Puri. This one is less explored, much less crowded and equally enticing.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there and around

Fly into Bhubaneshwar direct from Mumbai on Air India, Indigo Air or Jet Konnect (return fares from Rs. 14000 – roughly 280 USD).

Konark is just over 60 km, an hour and half away from Bhubaneshwar, the nearest airport and large railway station. Puri with its beautiful beach and the Jagannath temple is just 35 km, an hour’s drive from Konark along the coast. It is best to hire a car from Bhubaneshwar for the entire trip till you get back to Bhubaneshwar as bus service is irregular.

A much cheaper way to travel is to take the package tour offered by OTDC (Odisha Tourism Development Corporation). These tour buses start from the government owned guesthouse and OTDC office Panthnivas (at Bhubaneshwar) or can be booked over the phone (0674-2431515). It is a day tour costing Rs. 300 (6 USD) and covers all main areas of tourist interest.

Other attractions

On the way from Konark to Puri, you can stop at your own private beach. The Ramchandi temple, only 8 km from Konark, is a popular picnic spot. Konark also hosts a classical dance festival every winter against the backdrop of the sun temple (dates vary and can be checked online). 20 km from Bhubaneshwar is Pipili, famous for its cloth patchwork umbrellas and bags in bright colours.

Where to stay

The government-run Panthnivas is of decent quality, even though the exteriors do not inspire much confidence and is present in all three towns. It is best to base yourself in Bhubaneshwar or Puri where all facilities are better for visitors.

The Mayfair Hotels and Resorts in both Bhubaneshwar and Puri (+91 674 6660 101) is an upscale option.

In Puri, the Chanakya BNR Hotel (91-6752 – 223006 / 91-9831032217) is right by the sea and is a great favourite among locals for its old world charm. The Maharaja’s former summer palace has been converted into a heritage hotel, the Fort Mahodadhi (91-6752-220440).

The Lotus Eco Village at Ramchandi beach – closer to Konark – is new and offers cottages with views of the sea (91-6758-236161).

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Published in Morning Calm, the inflight magazine of Korean Air. Only text by me in the original published story.

Shortcut to Salvation

In Varanasi, also known as Kashi, the city of light, it is always about the celebration of life, even in the midst of death…

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. That is how Mark Twain expressed his emotion towards the city that, in the midst of all the so-called progress and development, still manages to look old and venerable.

It is just after sunrise and I am on a boat with a few friends, gently cruising down the Ganga. Women, their colourful saris tightly wound around themselves, step unsurely into the water and offer their prayers, facing eastwards. The men are more adventurous; a few of them even manage to swim a few feet into the river, as they mirror the actions and rituals of their wives and mothers. A few of them are holding wailing babies and sleepy children, trying to get them to take a quick dip into the water that, they are sure, will cleanse them of all sins for a lifetime to come. I may still be bleary-eyed but Varanasi, or more correctly, the stretch by the river, has been alive for a couple of hours already. For what is Varanasi, if not for the Ganga, the cleanser of all sins and the soother of all consciences?

Offering

Offering

Morning at the ghats

Varanasi is believed to be one of the world’s oldest living cities, finding a mention in the country’s much-loved epic, the Mahabharata. It derives its name from the confluence of the Varana and the Assi rivers (both now dry and almost disappeared). In fact, legend has it that it was created by the God Shiva himself, making it one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Benaras, as Twain referred to it, is the Anglicized name, while most Indians prefer to call it Kashi, the city of light.

'Tis Somersault Time!

Golden Ganga

I get off the boat at Kedar ghat, among the largest and most active of the almost hundred ghats (fleet of steps leading to the river) to take in the buzz. As I sit, a teenage girl unfurls her large umbrella and sets up her wares for the day; milk (diluted, no doubt) to be offered to the God inside the tiny temple at the top of the steps. The heavyweights offering quick and light massages are also spreading their blankets on secluded areas by the steps and are ready for business.

A Brahmin priest approaches me, suggesting that I offer him some money so he can pray for my wellbeing. As I smile and refuse, he banters with me, “You can earn a lot of punya (let’s call them spiritual brownie points) for a little money.” He does not spend too much time on me though since there are others willing and waiting for his – and the greater God’s he prays to – blessings. People come to Varanasi to perform the last rites of their loved ones since Hindus believe that being cremated here and having the ashes scattered into the Ganga ensures a peaceful journey into the afterlife. However, there is nothing sad or sacred about these rituals as both the family and the priests go about the normal business of life even in the presence of death. They bargain, they buy, they eat and they sleep just as they would anywhere else.

I then head to Tulsi ghat downriver to the akhada, the local gymnasium that is part of the throbbing canvas of Varanasi. The young men hard at work by the time I walk into the akhada, some with their dumbbells, indigenous clubs and weights and balancing bars and some of them wrestling in the mud, guided by their teacher in his late sixties who looks fitter than any of the youngsters. There are also a few interested onlookers; the young men carry on paying scant attention to the clicking cameras. A few others taking a break between their workouts decide to pose, flexing their muscles and wiping the mud from their tired and sweaty faces.

Heave ho!

Somersault time

Back much later at Kedar ghat, I find that by then, the backpacking tourists have arrived, armed with their cameras and curiousity. They are here, just like the locals, in their own personal search for nirvana.

***
Published in the January issue of Morning Calm, the inflight magazine of Korean Air. Read the rest of the story on Varanasi here

And more photographs from Varanasi here